As thousands die all around us, Bob Dylan now delivers a musical lament about a single death that once seemed more than America could bear.
The new offering, “Murder Most Foul,” takes us back to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas nearly 60 years ago. The song is 17 minutes long. Sitting in our homes, in our isolation and anxiety and uncertain future, we have plenty of time on our hands to listen.
The modern plague, the coronavirus, haunts us the way few things have since the events of Nov. 22, 1963. In that era, Dylan was starting to become the voice of a generation. His songs seemed a kind of journalism, such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They are A-Changin'” and “Like a Rolling Stone.”
Now, unanticipated, at 78, with a Nobel Prize under his belt, he’s released his first original song in roughly a decade. That alone marks it as a cultural milestone. But it’s also a reminder of a more innocent time, and the national grief that seemed to linger for years.
The song, slow and mournful, sounds like a funeral dirge. The lyrics read like a pop culture inventory of an era, like an old man remembering familiar names that comforted us before so many things in America started going to hell.
The Beatles are in there. They arrived only weeks after Kennedy’s murder. But Pretty Boy Floyd’s in there, too, and Thelonious Monk and Patsy Cline, and Buster Keaton and Marilyn Monroe and Nat “King” Cole. That’s always been Dylan, pulling in random pieces of his surroundings to make whole cloth.
But Kennedy’s assassination’s the heart of it. He writes:
“The soul of a nation been torn away/And it’s beginnin’ to go into a slow decay.”
Actually, by most measures, the lyric’s wrong. It wasn’t “slow decay” America suffered back then so much as fast and furious convulsion.
Vietnam divided the nation. The civil rights struggle intensified and then lost its leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to assassination. Rioting followed in scores of cities. Then, Bobby Kennedy was murdered. The war dragged on. There were riots on college campuses around the country, and in Chicago outside the Democratic National Convention.
John Kennedy’s death seemed to set off so much of it. It seemed a belated end to the placid, controlled, post-war 1950s and the beginning of something else, something out of control, a whole new set of national rules, starting with the weekend of Kennedy’s murder.
We never left our television sets. And this, too, set off a new kind of ritual: televised grief therapy. We’ve seen it repeated across the years, following more assassinations, and the Challenger explosion, the bombing of Oklahoma City, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Now once again, we’re glued to our television sets, where we see the body count of the deceased rise daily. The days will become weeks and months. Kennedy’s killing took only an instant.
But the grief stayed with us so long that Bob Dylan could release a song about it nearly six decades later, and it still brings back that haunted hour.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” has just been reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.